NU apologizes for confusion over cancer center funds

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September 18th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken has apologized for any misunderstanding after Gov. Dave Heineman blasted the University for seeking tax dollars from Omaha and Douglas County to build a cancer research center.

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The controversy centers on the University’s request for $5 million from the Douglas County inheritance tax, and another $35 million from an additional cigarette tax in Omaha. Heineman said those requests were never mentioned when the University asked for state funds earlier this year. At that time, he said, university officials including President J.B. Milliken were saying the project would be built with $50 million in state funds, $120 million in borrowing, and $200 million in private donations. Now, he said, they’ve changed their tune. “They’re on the verge of losing my trust and confidence,” Heineman said. “They need to be more transparent, they need to be more open, and they need to be more honest.”

Gov. Dave Heineman blasted the University of Nebraska during a press conference Tuesday over funding for a proposed cancer center. (Courtesy photo)

“The University of Nebraska needs to stand up and say what happened,” he said. “We’re just asking for transparency. If the agreement changed, when did it change, who made the change, and why weren’t we told about it?”

In a written response, Milliken apologized for any misunderstanding. Milliken said that the cancer center was always envisioned as a public-private partnership “It is apparent, however, that our statements were not always clear or consistent, and I understand the governor’s concern. Governor Heineman and I have had a close working relationship for years, and I have personally apologized to him for any misunderstanding,” Milliken said. He added that some aspects of the fundraising have developed over time, and he was not aware of any discussion of taxes in Omaha until recently.

Heineman also criticized some state senators who defended the University last week. Among them was Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist. Nordquist, citing language in the appropriation bill, rejects the idea that aside from state funds and borrowing, university officials had said they would use only private contributions. “That wasn’t the case, at least in my conversations with them,” Nordquist said. “Other options were on the table. These weren’t the specific ones that they mentioned, but we didn’t take these off the table, either.”

“Had the Legislature only wanted state funds (or)… private funds, we would not have put language in the bill that said ‘or other funding sources’ were an option,” he said.

Nordquist pointed out that Heineman had originally opposed state funding, saying the timing was not good, before later changing his mind. Heineman said he thinks the cancer center project is a good one. But he said the project would have received more scrutiny last session if lawmakers had known that local taxes might be involved. And he said the appropriations language says state funds won’t be disbursed until $60 million in private funds have been raised.

“I fully expect this will be discussed again in the Nebraska Legislature,” he said.

For his part, Milliken said he is “gratified that the Governor has continued to state his support for the project.” The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene in January.

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